Iterations of shared dalit-black solidarity


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THE year 2020 was possibly the year of the century; at least looking at it from the vantage point of the pandemic, racial protests, Dalit uprisings, the defeat of Trump, the election of Boris Johnson, and the reverberations of Black Lives Matter protests in the white dominated world. We do not know what lies ahead. The possible apocalyptic disasters that we will give birth to are climate havoc, socio-economic wars, and the colonization of extra-terrestrial space. The peculiarity of these various dimensions will generate cosmopessimism. However, those with an optimistic bent of mind will strive for a more positive and livable space. Of the three aforementioned catastrophes, I will focus on the socio-economic internal wars in this paper.

The past century was rocked by globalized wars against colonizations. Much of the success of the anti-colonial fight resulted in the rebuilding of nations for the most part of the second half of the 20th century. Thus, we are still living in a relatively small time frame of humanity’s supposed triumph against oppression. The longue durée faith in citizen’s values and democracy remains an undecided fact. However, what we certainly aspire to, in this case, is the temerity of screaming for reclaiming unmanaged revenues of emotions and labour of the oppressed.

Socio-economic wars would be wars of ‘neo or para’ colonialism, or modifications of Achille Mbembe’s clairvoyance, para-civil wars.1 The enmity of the Other, the peculiar outsider colonizer, is no more the case. This brings to us the nightmares Ambedkar and Fanon had articulated where the enigmatic energies of the recently freed colonized people would demand accountability from their native rulers. Ambedkar was nostalgic about the pre-colonial past that was not under the rule of white European powers.


Would India lose its hard-fought independence one more time? Ambedkar was ‘anxious’, and did not turn down the possibility of such a calamity. India has witnessed repeated episodes of colonizations. ‘What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people.’2 Ambedkar knew the fickle, flail capacities of Indians, who were out there to look after themselves and not working for the common good.

Ambedkar concluded in the Constituent Assembly that independence for the country was ‘no doubt a matter of joy.’ However, he added several caveats, an ode to his pragmatism: ‘By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves.’ He continued, ‘there is great danger of things going wrong.’3 That danger he was witness to while drafting the Constitution was a country locked with growing unsatisfied radical ‘anarchists’, the ones on an anti-Brahminical caste front, and on the other end, the growing orthodoxy of religionists and a yawning liberal paradox. ‘People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of government by the people’ – a sharp statement of political theory.

Fanon had observed similarly wherein he identified the failure of the independent state to satisfy the violent, hungry public that was until independence ready to utilize that rage and energy to commit a bloodbath. But now that the violent colonial regimen was gone, there was still a capacity in the well trained mass to unleash violence upon its own people.4 This takes us to the next proposition: to identify how the recently freed subjugated people negotiated their humiliation to necessitate a rational call for a second freedom. Erstwhile there was international state support for their liberation effort, but now that sovereignty had been established after a hard fought war, how would they choose to communicate their grievances without being called out as anti-state actors?


One possible response to this push-back was to create newer solidarities with groups in similar conditions to influence global politics. This cross-border shared solidarity organized itself without active state intervention. It was an independent, autonomous approach. What constitutes solidarity and how is it communicated? Are there ways to inform the world without being on the wrong side of the state? These, and some other anxieties surrounding Dalit awareness, and the limitation of NGOization of the Dalit struggle outside India, will be critically examined in this paper.

To build solidarity and foment strategic allies, one needs to work through the grassroot language. The on-ground report should act as a manifesto and work upwards. The shape of allyship can be sustainable if it is accented by the oppressed people. Often times, the interlocutors in these struggles do not spend sufficient time on the ground, let alone rub shoulders with the oppressed population. One can be a person belonging to the same sub-ethnic or caste group and yet fail to translate the sentiment of oppression if one is not part of the historic violence that is committed upon fragile, unprotected bodies.


In the newly found, overly sensitive, uninformed woke culture, the purpose of upholding human rights values has been replaced with damaging sensitive rights. The dogma of protection and attention is subverted to fit the narrative of the one who can articulate in a language more acceptable to the ruling class. Can the oppressed speak? The one who is glued in between the axioms of crying and whining cannot gather enough energy to develop a fully formed thought that would find a way into journalists’ reports or notes of experts and ethnographers. One needs to learn the language of articulating solidarities. This does not mean that in the act of revolt and exhibition of satyagraha, the protest of the oppressed lacks content and theory. It is in their refusal to present a palatable forethought where we need to excavate their rejection of our invasive self in their class-less lives.

Solidarity and allyship are the buzzing qualifiers for one to develop an empathy in the woke culture. Can humanity be reduced to self-defined identity-based markers of affection? Can a man develop enough empathy to stand by a woman that he is busy oppressing? Can a ‘white’ develop humanity to serve the cause of being human? Can the Brahmin shed his caste arrogance to blow up the privileges of cultural unfreedoms that s/he brings upon non-Brahmins?5 These questions invite us to push the burden of empathy into the currency of camaraderie. The availability of information detailing the humanity of black genius on social media, generated the desired resistance in the youth, mostly Gen-Z and the millennial generation, who have yet to process 400 years of American slavery. That is why the not yet contaminated minds, living under the shelter of liberal parents, have found a way to challenge the brutality of the colour-sensitive murdering police force of America this (2020) spring and summer.


Solidarity is a form of co-ownership of time and space, while at the same time being cognizant of one’s unique but commonly shared humanity. It is a form that is developing in the political as well as personal consciousness. Solidarity accounts for the actions of bystanders, who could have acted instead of just assuming the role of spectatorship. It is a transmuting force of our theoretical constructs. By being in solidarity paves a path for the burdens on the mind to play a role without being committed to the ground. Raising awareness and at the same time being complicit in organizing rebelling forces against power, makes solidarity an act of courage that moves away from tokenism. The quest for solidarity preambles on reciprocation. The demand to exist in the universal language, while locked in domestic oppression, makes an act of solidarity a non-state para-global space of shared existence for alterative ideologies.

In the Dalit struggle, that source of empathy has yet to be recognized. The archives of Ambedkar and Phule detail the heightened, yet politically fragile, leadership of the dominant castes serving under the pantheons of Dalit and Shudra freedom struggle.6 However, that register of cross-caste solidarity is inadequate. The counter-culture of Dalit literature that called out faults in the dominant caste patronage of Dalit issues, further distanced the politically fragile dominant caste camaraderie. In light of this, one can look outwards and check on the Dalit related solidarity of the world. In a pragmatic sense, there is no Dalit solidarity anywhere that can be counted as being helpful to the Dalit liberation struggle.


There are no nations that are committed to Dalit humanity, who raise their concerns with the Indian authorities. Dalits are lone fighters left to the strength of their wrist and drift of mind to find ways to survive. Perhaps because of this, even though we had Dalit Panthers, it did not have any international influence upon others. The Black Panthers who partly inspired Dalit Panthers, had commonalities of greater differences, as opposed to the similarities, in its strategy of organiziation and goals.7 The Dalit Panthers did not have any concrete community level projects. They did not dwell on feeding, educating and propagandizing the politics as much as retorting to the atrocities with the force of fist and might of literature.

Notwithstanding this, there are intellectual possibilities to create a vast network of solidarity. A Dalit Panther has to rely on the black movement. However, the black subject of America is itself so burdened by the post-civil rights oppression that it cannot necessarily offer international leadership. This is the reason African American leaders like Angela Davis acknowledged the limitations of black leadership in working with the Dalit movement. Almost in a self-critical call, Davis was irate about the profound ignorance of the black leadership on the Dalit cause.8


In spite of this, Davis was not immune to the Brahminical impression on her mind. There were a few oversights that Davis was subjected to. She assumed anti-caste Brahmin feminist Sharmila Rege, who wrote on Dalit women, to be a Dalit feminist. Davis met with Rege in 2011 and had a sustained relationship. Five years later, when Davis was reminiscing, it appeared that neither Rege nor Davis’ interlocutors in India had corrected her. Davis went on to compare Rege’s work with black feminism that focused on ‘state violence and police violence.’9

The current generation of Dalit is demanding more than just an acknowledgment from the black community. It is pushing for an international agenda on Dalits. However, due to a lack of sufficient data and studies on the Dalit predicament, especially in the diasporic spaces, it has become challenging to make a case for Dalit liberation. This because Dalit as a subject of a sovereign nation in India has always received red signals from the government. However, what has not happened, and where the Indian government cannot interfere, is the pursuance of caste and its triumph in the diasporic society. Caste and diaspora have a long history of manipulation and denudation. Many opted to counterattack caste or undermine its role to get rid of the humiliations of being ‘lower’ to someone of equal indenture status.10


The modern diaspora in the West has more intimacies to caste and its embrace than the earlier generations in other cartographies. The sheer force of cultural and social capital adds to the equalizer demanding equal rights and respect. The Dalit subject then wants to reclaim itself as an oppressed body when other oppressions are getting recognition. The Dalit struggle in the 1970s in America11 and 1960s in Vancouver, Canada, highlights this aspect.12 The site of contestation becomes the same cultural space of powers that are reproduced in the newfound land amongst the caste communities. The current generation is now trying to grapple with its own histories of oppression and atrocities in the hope of developing a solidarity. The articulations of newer solidarities need to be seen through these attempts, first, by the nu-Dalit diasporic appeal for non-Dalit, western-oppressed groups, and second, the dominant caste diasporic outreach to Dalits.

Caste and diaspora have been widely studied by scholars through various lenses – historical, sociological, anthropological, and also economic. Vivek Kumar’s introductory statement provided critical information on caste formations and its organizations in the diasporic society.13 Gopal Guru’s take on the internationalizing of the Dalit cause, and its limitations with neoliberal and western modalities of the Dalit cause suggests hindering anecdotes. Purvi Mehta’s Ph.D. dissertation on the Ambedkarite movement in America presented historical as well as ethnographic insights on the organizational aspects of anti-caste movements.14 Raj Kumar Hans’ work in British Columbia in Canada provided a caste narrative to the history of Sikh migration.15 One of the earliest works in this direction was covered by Schwartz in an edited collection aptly titled Caste in Overseas Indian Communities.16


Work in Africa, especially in light of the indentured but also the settled immigrant caste formation of society, was done by an excellent ethnographic collection of Agehananda Bharati.17 Following this, I took upon the task of articulating caste structures among Indian communities in Africa.18 Surendra Bhana meticulously documents names on ship’s list,19 while Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s broader historical stroke covers the history of Indian indenture in Southern Africa.20 Chakravorty et al.’s work on Indian Americans referenced the Dalit demography in passing while its focus remained on profiling the immigration aspects of Indian immigrants over the highly selective group of Indians in America over the past fifty years.21


In this paper, I will present case studies of two of the most charged international countries that have actively contested caste-based discrimination over the past six and four decades respectively – UK and USA. I have the experience of organizing and working with various anti-caste bodies in both the countries. Taking from my notes as a participant-observer, and ethnography aided with structured interviews and archival data, I present the nature of organizing, its equi-position in history, and how newer articulations of shared solidarities shape Dalit anxieties.

In the process of theorizing the epistemology of activism, I will analyse field notes to examine how solidarities are created, or not envisioned. How Dalit groups look at solidarity and what strengthens or weakens their position in international activism. Do we look at activism only through the perspective of shared solidarity, or can solidarity be articulated without getting under the skin of other oppressed groups to evoke syllogism and similar slogans? What conditions are needed to exemplify a unique Dalit position that is not an ‘internal problem’ of India anymore? These are some of the challenges through which Dalit activism organizes itself in a foreign country.

Gopal Guru argues that caste overpowers colour as a marker of solidarity.22 To prove his point, he refers to the dominant caste diaspora in white dominated countries who, in spite of being non-white Indians, still don’t forge solidarity with Dalits. There is another reason for this, the non-sociality among various castes. This nature of difference and distance easily gets translated because it does not require one to invent new subjectivities in a country that has advanced segregation and an impurity complex within its culture and social frameworks.


There are some events that are not covered in this paper, but would be taken up at length on another occasion: (i) The socio-legal analysis of the Cisco caste discrimination case where I am an expert advisor to the petitioning team; (ii) The statement of Dalit women against casteism in the tech industry highlighted by the Washington Post; (iii) The grassroots organizing against caste discrimination in the US; and (iv) Iterations of cross-solidarity work by Dalits with other similarly oppressed groups.

Like the United States, another geography which is equally diverse and has an intimate colonial legacy is the United Kingdom. Dalits were one of the early entrants to apply for British citizenship when the doors were opened for work and settlement. Of the Punjabi wave of British immigration, Dalits constituted significant numbers as the working class immigrant force in the UK. And thus, the history of Dalit presence in Britain is recorded through various socio-cultural activities and political movements.

It began with recognizing their history and establishing their equal status in the host society. This was done through celebrating the life of their heroes. The first Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated in 1962 in London by a small group of Maharashtrian Ambedkarites – Krishna Gamare, V.T. Hirekar, Madhu Hirekar, Shekhar Bagul, Shyam Khobragade, Dr Bhatkar, Dr Ganvir, Kardark and S.S. Gaikwad – who were intimately connected with the politics of Ambedkarite movement.23 These individuals eventually formed the Indian Buddhist Society, UK, that had significant Punjabi Dalits – Darshan Sarhali, Charan Dass Baudh, Prakash Chand Sondhi, Sohan Lal Leal, K.C. Leal, Mengha Ram, and few others. It was changed to the Ambedkar International Mission in 1974, at the behest of Shyam Khobragade, to ‘establish a more visionary’ statement that would appeal to a larger constituency with a stated objective of ‘the Federal Council of Ambedkarites in the UK’.24 This work continued with the Ambedkar International Mission installing a portrait of Dr Ambedkar at the Indian High Commission, London, in 1978.25


The Dalit history of anti-caste protest in the UK is older than in the US which began in the 1960s.26 One of the earliest anti-caste protest movements was around epithets hurled against Dalits in a pub. A pub that was mostly used by Dalits was derogatorily referred to as ‘Chamar Pub’. Two additional examples, elucidated by Arun Kumar, a journalist and chronicler of the Ambedkarite movement in the UK, highlights this growing resonance of consciousness.27 In 1968, around 3000 Dalits congregated in London to protest against the Shankaracharya who expressed his stance in favour of caste by justifying its importance.


The second example about an offensive statement justifying caste was reported in a local newspaper, the Bedfordshire Times in 1976 by a dominant caste Indian in Bedford. As a result, Dalit protest forced the man to apologize for his demeaning and offensive remarks. Dalits boycotted the man’s business which led to the winding up of his shop. The significant move towards Dalit activism was centred on Ambedkar’s directives.

The 1960s is a landmark decade in the history of British Dalit activism. In addition to Bedford, Birmingham and Wolverhampton were two major centres of Ambedkarite activism. To organize better, the legendary Dr Ambedkar Memorial Committee of Great Britain (AMCGB) was established in 1969 after protests against the Shankaracharya ignited Dalits. AMCGB was host to noted Dalit thinkers and activists from India. The likes of Nanak Chand Rattu, Ambedkar’s close associate for 17 years and private secretary for six, and Bhagwan Das frequented Wolverhampton. Rattu donated some of Ambedkar’s possessions to the museum of the organization. AMCGB also helped to publish Rattu’s book Little Known Facets of Dr. Ambedkar.28

The activities in the Ambedkarian path took a leap when mass conversion to Buddhism was organized in the West Bromwich Townhall in June 1973. The conversion event was administered by venerable Dr H. Saddhatissa – a Buddhist monk who was witness to Dr Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur on 14 October 1956. An excitement grew from this courageous step to convert from the faith that incurred discrimination into egalitarian Buddhism. The dominant caste Indian diaspora was shocked to witness the efforts of Ambedkar replicated in a foreign land after almost two decades of his conversion in India. This was a direct answer to the intimidations and control of the dominant castes. To further the efforts of Ambedkarite Buddhism, Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Society, Birmingham in September 1973 continued its activities in socio-spiritualism.29


Dalits who arrived in the 1960s were mostly from Punjab’s Doaba region that had a sizable population of Dalits. This provided the confidence to resist caste-based atrocities. Naturally, people from the region were well versed in the politics of caste. The uneducated, unskilled Dalit workforce was attracted to the Bedford and Luton area where brick kilns and steel industry offered jobs. West Midlands was among the largest recipient of migrant labour which was named ‘Black Country’, that produced iron, steel, coal, brick among others. It is here that migrant Indians found jobs working with iron melting furnaces.30 To consolidate their political effort ‘The Republic Group of Great Britain’ was established in 1962 in Birmingham under the able guidance of Darshan Sarhali, Khushi Ram Jhumat, and Comrade Mohan Lal. Chanan Chalal was one of the active leaders in Bedford who led the Dalit rights movement in the UK during the late 1980s and ’90s. They even fielded candidates for local elections.


Dalit activism in Bedford transcended into social, cultural and sports activities. A sports club, Bheem Association, was established in Bedford in 1972. This brought the youthful energies amongst the Dalit community to congregate in one place.

The culmination of this activism was noticed during the 1991 golden jubilee of Ambedkar’s birthday celebration at his alma mater, the London School of Economics. Dr Ambedkar Memorial Committee of Great Britain, Wolverhampton; Ambedkar Buddhist Council, UK (precursor to FABO); Ambedkar Buddhist Society, Birmingham, UK; Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organizations (FABO); Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, UK; Caste Watch, UK; Dalit Solidarity Network, UK; Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Organization, Birmingham, UK; Dr Ambedkar Mission Society, UK; Dalit Forum for Social Justice, UK; Voice of Dalit International, UK; alongside around 21 Guru Ravidass Gurudwaras, eight Valmiki Temples, and four Buddha Viharas were established to assert rights and protest against hegemonizing Hindu or caste-dominated Sikh practices.

Two historic conventions were organized at the dawn of this century. The first was a ‘Caste and Human Rights’ seminar at Grimsby College in June 2000. Three community members who were victims of caste discrimination were participants in this seminar that invited VODI to organize similar affected people in the UK. This led to VODI organizing ‘Dalit Human Rights’ conference in September 2000 in association with the Dalit Solidarity Group, UK. Luminaries from Indian and UK’s political, social and academic background, participated in this.

Two important deliberations paved the path for constructive activism. The first, to tackle caste discrimination in the UK and second, the responsibility of ‘International Aid Agencies Addressing Dalit Issues’.31 The participation of Sat Pal Muman, a second-generation Dalit activist, in this conference who presented a paper ‘Caste in Britain’ gave birth to Caste Watch, UK in 2004.32


Dalit groups in the UK collectively lobbied against caste-based practices giving rise to the Equality Bill momentum that argued to include caste as a form of discrimination or as the Government of the UK proposed in section 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act, 2010 to include caste ‘as an aspect of race’.33 However, this was later repealed in 2018.34

Despite its rich history of protest, one cannot see active efforts among Dalits to create cross solidarities with other oppressed groups. Dalit organizations have been indifferent to collaborative forms of resistance. That is why no long-term partnerships could be established. The fight against caste had two dimensions and perhaps because of that it had limited avenues. The first was against fellow Indians who continued to mistreat Dalits as lower castes, and second, the Indian state’s assault on Dalits in India. Sat Pal Muman offered an explanation. The majority of the working force was working class that could barely take time out from their everyday work and caste struggle to go out and meet other groups that were alien to their mother tongue, and as well as foreign in nature. Another reason being caste is a ‘specialist area which is difficult to articulate to other people.’35 It requires a learned explanation for a foreign audience which is already asking for clarity from a distant and confused position.


Muman argues that ordinary Dalits were not in a position to offer a simple explanation especially to a much more educated audience than theirs. Additionally, Muman notes the lack of experts and academics in the community able to convey caste grievances effectively to the media and other avenues. He cites his own organization, ‘Caste Watch, UK’ that has a dearth of such full-time experts. As he put it, ‘I am an activist. I don’t theorize neither speculate. I believe in doing things that are in immediate sight.’36

However, Muman pushed back on thinking about solidarity from an anti-caste position. There are two types of solidarity he argued. The first kind is institutional and the second is pragmatic reactionary. On the institutional solidarity Dalit groups couldn’t do much because of their preoccupation with full time work and family responsibilities that didn’t give them enough time to explore the possibilities of finding relevance with other oppressed groups. On the second type of solidarity, Muman confidently asserts that they made impressive inroads. ‘Whenever we organize demonstrations against caste atrocities, we can fill the streets of London in thousands.’ The people who came to support are mostly progressive, left inclined groups such as South Asian Solidarity Group, UK, alongside many Ravidasis and Valmikis, and the trade unions.


There is another insight Muman offers to this condition which is the development of anti-caste consciousness in the UK. When Indian labourers first arrived in the UK they were not in huge number and because they worked in hard labour, they did not have enough money to lodge separately. This forced many of them to share spaces in small houses. Caste related consciousness was not as overt and could not find a way if it was conditioned to poverty and hustle. However, there were incidents of casteism as found in the archives of 1960s. This explains the convenience of a caste ethic that was looked after some groups to challenge its growing dominance.

On the question of the distant position of Dalit activism from creating solidarity with other groups, Shrikant Borkar, an anthropologist of civil society activism and social entrepreneur policy in the UK, commented that the perspective was often rooted to challenge the Brahminical hegemony in India and the UK. It was not meant to actively seek collaborations.37 During my work in the Southall area in 2012, I was tasked with connecting the cooperative unions in the area. I was also trying to make inroads with the black community of the area that was twinned to racial and religious categorization.


The Dalit record in America is not state intervened and neither is it an academic project. The state is uninterested in recording the Dalit experience or in gathering information on Dalits for policy making through consensus. The Dalit experience has not received enough academic attention to develop a theory of Dalit Americans. There isn’t enough material that could essentialize the Dalit presence in America and this created problems in articulating grievances. This was seen in the CISCO caste discrimination case filed by a Dalit employee of the technological giant in a California court. The attorneys for the complainant had to struggle to make a case based on caste experience in their charge sheet. The absence of authentic sources to back the claim of Dalit presence in America and the non-availability of a credible study, has made the possibility of solidarity between Dalits and other groups more relatable.

Data doesn’t always speak the whole truth, but it opens a dialogue for learning and sharing. The process of solidarity cannot be actualized without stories of pain and the politics of power play. The Ambedkarite groups did not produce a report showing solidarity efforts with other oppressed groups. There are reasons for this. The first was related to the limitation in their capacities, and second, they found no reason to advance critical solidarities.

Laxmi Berwa, a Dalit American physician co-organized an event in the 1990s connecting Dalits with African Americans via the intellectual giants of their communities: Dr Ambedkar and Dr King.38 This did not result in cementing solidarity. Laxmi Berwa told me that there were no occasions to work together and that is why his group VISION (Volunteers in the Service of Oppressed Indian) worked on hitting back at the Indian government delegation against caste atrocities.39

Due to a lack of adequate conditions, Dalit solidarity with other oppressed groups was left to the NGO sector and its collaborations with other NGOs at the UN. The religious movement of Dalits helped to create awareness, but did not translate into articulating a shared solidarity. The Dalit Christian groups with a church based global Christian rights framework provided that opportunity for the Dalit question to be raised on a religious platform. The same, however, is done by Dalit Buddhists who visit Buddhist viharas for purely spiritual practice, not as an organized bloc.


Part of the reason for non-Dalit experience in America is due to the near absence of Dalit artists, intellectuals, activists and political leaders in the country. Due to obvious reasons of poverty and limited networks, the Dalit leaders could not draw more attention to their cause. Additionally, language played a big role in non-translatability of Dalit ideas articulated and debated in regional languages. Barring two well known Dalit intellectuals there wasn’t any noticeable presence of Dalit intellectual force as compared to the ones led by Lala Lajpat Rai and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay among others in the 20th century.40 Dalit intellectuals only came to America after India’s independence in an era post the civil rights movement.

Shobha Singh, was a Fulbright PhD scholar at Johns Hopkins University who earned his PhD in 1957 and worked for the telephone company (AT&T) Bell Labs.41 Namdeo Nimgade came to the US in the early 1960s to write his dissertation in soil science at the University of Wisconsin in 1962. After his stint Nimgade returned to India to resume his professional work and social responsibilities inspired by Dr Ambedkar. Nimgade wrote an inspiring autobiography detailing his life.42


Another important Dalit figure who came to the United States following Nimgade was a literary studies scholar and important figure in the Dalit literary movement, Manohar Namdeo Wankhede. Wankhede arrived at University of Florida, Gainsville to write a dissertation on ‘Walt Whitman and Tantrism: A Comparative Study’. After returning to India, Wankhede launched new enquiries into the African American and Dalit experience.43 This gave rise to the genre of ‘Negro Sahitya’ (Negro Literature) in Marathi alongside the Dalit Literary Movement.44 Another individual, Har Dayal, came to write his PhD at the University of Mississippi in 1967 via Somalia where he taught in 1966. Dayal dropped his studies due to financial constraints and took up a job. It was at his house that the legendary organization VISION was conceived in 1976 in Brick Township, NJ.45


Later in 1978, at a community meeting held at Ranveer Singh’s residence in Dale City, Virginia, a decision was made to officially form a group that would keep a check on caste atrocities in India. The first president selected was Dr Shobha Singh, Dr Laxmi Berwa was made the secretary, and Ranveer Singh the treasurer. Dr Berwa designed the logo of the organization. A few months after the meeting, VISION was registered in New Jersey.46

Yogesh Varhade, an engineer who ran a successful automobile business in Welland, Canada, founded the Ambedkar Center for Justice & Peace (ACJP). One of the earliest anti-caste lobbying groups in North America arrived in the early 1970s via Germany. Laxmi Berwa, AIIMS, a trained oncologist arrived in June 1971 and served the US Air Force in the rank of Major and later devoted himself to private practice. P.N. Arya, one of the key founding members of VISION worked as a senior engineer in General Electric. These were the frontrunners of the organization. Ranveer Singh from Uttar Pradesh worked for the Federal government, along with Suraj Pal Singh, a lawyer, Har Dayal, Meera Dayal, Ram Gautam, Martand Varhade filed behind the organization.

All the organizers I spoke with told me that they observed the contemporary activities of Dalits in India via Dalit Panthers activism; however, it did not influence them. Yogesh Varhade commented that, ‘the Dalit Panthers should have been well organized with a structure. But due to the absence of this, the VISION leadership could not find reason to connect with the Dalit Panthers.’47 Laxmi Berwa, in fact said that he had not heard of Dalit Panthers in America.48 This explains the limits of Dalit Panther activism.


Talking about the coloured solidarities of the 20th century, Nico Slate writes, ‘Colored cosmopolitanism emerged primarily among artists and intellectuals, many of whom traveled widely.’49 Exposing the limitations of the African American and Indian solidarity of the past century, Slate states that it was a relatively elite connection. Poverty of black Americans and poor Indians did not offer an opportunity to travel and connect.

If we take stock of the Dalit condition in this coloured cosmopolitan framework, Dalits are disadvantaged on many levels. Their poverty plus caste-based status did not allow them time and resources to escape the feudal lord’s whipcord and establish international solidarities. The ones who could, tried to assert through their literary connections. The Dalit literary movement was partly responsible for uplifting a shared experience of Dalit-‘Negro’.

One of the earliest works on Dalit-Black literary tradition was by Janardhan Waghmare, who studied the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin for his doctoral thesis.50 Waghmare sought unity among the Dalits and African Americans for both the groups face social and cultural inequalities. They interpret the world with a social commitment, and it is this language that makes them architects of cultural revolution.51 Simultaneously, M.N. Wankhede’s regular intervention on the issue of Dalit and ‘Negro Sahitya’ exposed to the Dalit audience the conditions of Black Americans. He reported about life in a ghetto, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, poverty on the farms, the polar question of identity of black people as being African as well as Americans, American culture as being an African American culture through the literature of Black Americans. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, James Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Pauli Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chester Himes, Richard Wright among others feature in his articles to emphasize the rebellion of African Americans.


The theme of ‘vidroh’ which Wankhede embraced in his writings and brought to the literary sphere, is often repeated while explaining to the Dalit world the importance of taking on sophistications of literary armaments and developing love and beauty (Soundarya Shastra) – a theme picked by many like Gangadhar Pantawane, Baburao Bagul, Sharankumar Limbale52 and Sharad Patil.53 Black poetry and Black theatre featured as important genres in Wankhede’s description.54 With all this highly important and influential work done by Dalit writers to educate the Dalit public about the Black cause, there was no reciprocation.


Even as I was growing up, I was aware of the ‘Negro’ problem in America. Dalit activists and households knew about it due to the important work done by Dalit scholars. However, the actual work of solidarity did not take effect. Black Panthers remained oblivious of the existence of Dalit Panthers and the leadership. This is evident with the absence of Dalit archives from the Black Panthers and the related black activists of the era. Barring new names such as Runoko Rashidi and Kevin Brown there is hardly anyone one can point to as an inheritor of Dalit-Black legacy.

Organizing and solidarity both require two essential components. The first is education, and second, similarities. Due to the immense diversity of caste issues and its provincial (localized) hold on victimizing caste oppressed people, the oppressed subject is invested in the immediate freedoms to rid the intimate oppressor. It is the genius of caste that has managed to create ‘graded hierarchies’ at each level thereby making the passage of casteism easy without a hinge into any fold of caste groups in the hierarchy. Even the ones who have more reason and commercial purpose to retain caste affinity with Dalits, managed to invent reasons to establish a violent supremacy. It is in these capable standards of caste atrocities that Dalit victims are limited in their prospect to actively work with other groups located beyond their physical borders in a foreign land.


The groups do not share an identical relation that is easily visible and vocal to their suffering like the ones based on race, gender, nationality, or ethnicity. Caste oppression requires sophisticated language to explain its temerity and is often located in the vernacular. These obstacles plus a lack of awareness in the host society, further disadvantages the cause of Dalits. Added to it is world activism against racism that did not do much to advance the cause of Dalits because it was a physically distant group that was oppressed. Caste was always seen as ‘an internal problem’ that needed to be solved by Indians.

The culturalism of caste played another important role in spiritualizing caste without explicitly mentioning it. The culturalizing of caste is based upon ‘heterophilia’ – which is not to be feared but seen as a ‘required’ difference, a legitimate form that gives rise to cultural casteism. The Other needs to be otherised to maintain the protocols of casteism.55 If the host society discusses the caste problem, it is rejected by caste groups as happened in the UK – as a misrepresentation and racist idea. David Mosse calls this ‘externalization of caste’.56 This framework allowed the Hindu sentiment to be genuinely hurt and assume a broader and complex identity alongside Sikh and Jains under the auspices of ‘Dharma Sewa Purvapaksha’, to rebut any inquisition of caste as a colonial-Christian plot devised to avenge upon innocent Hindus.57 It blatantly stated that ‘Caste discrimination claims [are] legal threats to businesses, public authorities and Dharmic community organizations.’58 It is a ploy to undermine the ‘Hindu’ claim and replace it with ‘Dharmic communities’ for an identity of ‘British Asians’.59


It is in this light the Hindu lobby in the UK tried to appropriate Valmikis (Dalit Hindus) as part of their broader Hindu coalition to refute the claims of anti-caste groups. This move exposed to the world sinister dominant caste Hindu intentions. The head of Bhagwan Valimiki Sabha, Southall, expressed his irritation over the Hindu temple’s misguidance: ‘They took our signature without explicitly mentioning to us the reason for it. We were kept in the dark. Only after we found our name was mentioned in a petition refuting the charges that caste discrimination does not exist, our anger knew no bounds. This was in total opposition to our position. We rectified it but knew that they try to use us under the name of Hindu but deny any respect in their institution.’60

Mosse argues such deceitfulness among Hindus comes from a fundamentally different social position than what Dalits occupy. He suggests, taking from Zavos’ claims that Hindu identity prefers to live outside the national space to easily invest in retaining the inferiorized internal differences of caste. Therefore, in order to posit a positive identity, the Hindus need to rid the negative aspects.61


To build solidarity among the oppressed peoples, deep learning and counterarguments needs to go hand in hand. The theoretical description of the problem needs the added support of the field view. The latter is ubiquitous in action and thought. The counterarguments often take two positions: of subjectivity, and of defensive rationality. The denier of problems directs the query to an ahistorical catalogue that removes them from culpability. Something similar happened with the Equality Act activism in the UK. The camp of counterargument accused the experts on the committee of vicarious belief – who misrepresented the caste logic and Dalit reason. Thus, they held a charge of British colonial, Christian voyeurism into the sacred, private sphere of Hinduism.

Another argument that befuddles the nature of caste in its originality is to question what it is made of. Regressive, progressive, Gandhians and other dominant castes argue for the caste reason. By casting an upper gaze on caste as a harmonizing order that has ‘prevent[ed] competition and class struggle and class war’,62 the dominant elites withdraw the experience of the suffering and victimhood of Dalits. In his exposé of Gandhi’s view on the Varna order, written in Gujarati in a book entitled, Varna Vyavastha, Ambedkar reproduced their translation in his devastating chapter, ‘Gandhism the Doom of the Untouchables’.63

Gandhi found ‘no harm if a person belonging to one varna acquire[d] the knowledge or science and art specialized in by persons belonging to other varnas.’64 This is often attributed to the dominant castes, who have no fear to choose from the available ‘pure’ occupations as opposed the Dalits whose attempts to acquire anything ‘pure’ from their impure location is unwelcome and remains despised. Gandhi continues the trail of thought, ‘[B]ut as far as the way of earning his living is concerned, he must follow the occupation of the varna to which he belongs which means he must follow the hereditary profession of his forefathers.’65 This is caste Hindu hypocrisy that Ambedkar contended, found its articulation through the likes of an international actor Gandhi. The UK defence of caste stands along similar lines thereby blurring a significant line of pro-caste Hindi, Punjabi speaking conservatives, or rights believing liberals defending their pride through rationalization of caste.


Dalit as an object of enquiry, but also as a reasoned human who could experience pain and grief, is withdrawn from the Brahminical constructs of the caste debate. Meena Dhanda refuted the charge of orientalism that is usually held against narrators of caste genocide. Dhanda contrasted orientalism with Ambedkar’s critique of Brahminism, focusing on caste through the lens of the oppressed and not as a subjective view of dominant objects.66

Therefore, the category of caste as being ‘indeterminate’ because of its unclear position from unique vantage points of caste, does not disqualify the experiences of the victims for whom hermeneutical interpretation matters less as opposed to the everyday psychic and physical violence they receive.67 It is not as significant to delve into the true etymology of ‘caste’ to relate with the ‘identification of the pattern of behaviour that can be identified as casteist.’68 What is then essential is not the intent but the execution. This execution manages to dehumanize the Other in the process of revealing its true nature which results in singular victimhood – non-transactional trading of insult and power.


The host society decorated its walls with cultural diversity by giving provenance to the dominant caste cultures under the garb of India’s colourful diversity. In a multicultural society like the UK, religion becomes a negotiator par excellence to stabilize multiculturalism on behalf of the state. It is not that the host society is unaware of the caste brutalities and sensitivities around caste-based oppression. English colonial society embarked on sophisticating caste into quotidian vocabularies. Therefore, it cannot claim learned innocence. Looking at the rising protests in England around Englishness as a cultural metaphor, Paul Gilroy argues that race and ethnicity remain central contesting tropes in the maintenance of post-colonial pluralistic British society.69 We may add another rising experience to England’s Englishness looking from the post-World War II prism, and caste. As this manifests in the growing settler South Asian society passing over three generations, it evolves into a hybrid form of British casteism.


The host society played into the hands of dominant castes – its loyal old allies in India, instead of solving the problems their homeland created. Even though it was an ‘internal problem’ it was a problem nevertheless that was composed and exercised on their land which makes the host society equally complicit for providing a safe environment and enhancing a confident attitude to impose casteism to victimize Dalits. Thus, the hypocrisy of the host society to treat caste as an outsider or alien problem becomes internalized into its democratic social framework. The caste issue does not remain a non-societal issue but de facto assimilates into making the host society a caste haven. The liberal axioms of rights and protection guaranteed the existence of caste irrespective of the resistance.

The very arbiter of religious protectionism as a defence not to intervene in ‘internal’ problems, gets a new lease of life when put into context of the Dalit position. Dalits visualize their self within the contours of religion as in ‘evermore-generalizing frameworks’ and not the juridically complicated ones.70

The Christian-led, urban based, cosmopolitan Dalit rights activism led by NGOs that Gopal Guru has been critically examining for two decades continues to be witnessed in current times.71 Apart from India based Dalit NGOs, there are also American born NGOs who have now chosen to appropriate the cause of Dalit rights. Their position in the anti-caste activism is often received with hostility and suspicion. The many Ambedkarite groups in America have a focus diametrically different from the NGO perspective whose solidarity work is to create partners to convince the donor agencies as a hallmark of their existence. Creating solidarity is the fuel for the NGOs to stay relevant in America and thereby tag onto the causes of American racial and social inequities. These NGOs are not grassroots and neither a people’s movement. Guru observed similarly a decade ago and argued for Phule and Ambedkar’s theoretical and ideological argumentation as opposed to the rhetorical and symbolical embrace of the neoliberal order.72 In current times, the NGOs are not always Christian-led, but have diversified to embrace female partners of Phule and Ambedkar by calling out the latter’s male privilege. This move presents a challenge to Guru’s articulation which pretends commitment to the cause through the social media spectacle but reproduces similar harms and distrust on the same community it declares to protect.


Guru’s analysis still holds weight especially in pointing out the limited tolerance of internal criticism. Many such NGOs prefer silence to internal criticism while pulling punches on feminists or others of marginal identities in the politics of appropriating victimhood. During Guru’s time, ‘extra-intellectual methods’ were aimed to create ‘moral intimidation’73 for the short-lived euphoria of international based activism. If this pattern were to continue, the current hyper-activism will also see its end with no significant improvement in the quality of Dalit struggles.

Similarly, two leaders of the UK anti-caste movement, who wished not to be named, told me that the NGO thrust has created a divide in the groups. This splintering then paved the path for disgruntled members to form new NGOs in the UK anti-caste activism space. ‘I still don’t know what the reason was. I still think to this day’, a president of an anti-caste organization, who has been at the forefront of anti-caste legislation, expressed in a sad tone over the fallout of the united front.


This article aimed to present a historic snapshot of UK and USA Dalit organizations activism against caste-based exclusion and discrimination. The activism in the UK began in the 1960s, while in the USA it took form in the 1970s. If the activists in these two countries were aware about each other is unclear because some of these organizations operated at the national level, though with a strong international presence. Cross-border solidarities do not exist as robustly as expected. There are various reasons that give rise to this gap. The first being language, the second, difficulty in comprehension to explain caste, and third, no active histories of relations that the current generation can build upon. It is precisely for these reasons, the culpability of Dalit oversight rests more on the current generation rights-based activists.

Dalits need to frame a new image that is palatable and accessible for groups to share solidarity and develop an international camaraderie. There is a dearth in active academic investigations and international movements to hold South Asian countries – mainly India, Nepal, Pakistan – responsible for the atrocities on its most oppressed victims.


* This article is part of the DPhil project at University of Oxford.


1. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2017; Achille Mbembe in ‘Race and Caste with Achille Mbembe and Suraj Yengde’, organized by South Asian Civilizations, University of Toronto, 4 November 2020.

2. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Constituent Assembly Deliberations on 25 November 1949’, CAD, Vol. 11, 25 November 1949, available on:

3. B.R. Ambedkar, ibid.

4. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (trans. Constance Farrington). Penguin Classics, London, 2001.

5. Suraj Yengde, Caste Matters. Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2019, chapter 6.

6. Yogiraj Bagul, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkaranityanche Dalitetar Sahkari (Dr Ambedkar and His non-Dalit Comrades). Granthali, Mumbai, 2015; Suraj Yengde, Caste Matters, op. cit., chapter 6.

7. Suraj Yengde, ‘The Harvest of Casteism: Race, Caste and What it Will Take to Make Dalit Lives Matter’, The Caravan (cover story), July 2020.

8. Angela Davis, ‘Build, Rebuild and Consolidate Communities’, 8th Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture, YouTube, =4209s; Angela Davis, ‘Statement on Hathras’, India Civil Watch, 2019

9. Ibid.

10. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914. HSRC Press, Pretoria, 2010.

11. Suraj Yengde, July 2020, op. cit.

12. Raj Kumar Hans, ‘Gurdwara as a Cultural Site of Punjabi Community in British Columbia, 1905-1965’, in Sushma J. Verma and Radhika Seshan (eds.), Fractured Identity: The Indian Diaspora in Canada. Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2003, pp. 217-233.

13. Vivek Kumar, ‘Dalit Diaspora: Invisible Existence’, Diaspora Studies 2(1), pp. 53-74.

14. Purvi Mehta, Recasting Caste: Histories of Dalit Transnationalism and the Internationalization of Caste Discrimination. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2013.

15. Raj Kumar Hans, 2003, pp. 217-233.

16. Barton Morley Schwartz (eds.), Caste in Overseas Indian Communities. Chandler Publishing Co., San Francisco, 1967.

17. Agehananda Bharati, The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru. Nelson-Hall Co., Chicago, 1972.

18. Suraj Yengde, ‘Caste among Indians in Africa’, Economic and Political Weekly 50(37), pp. 65-68.

19. Surendra Bhana, Indentured Indian Emigrants to Natal, 1860-1902: A Study Based on Ships’ Lists. Promilla, New Delhi, 1991.

20. Ashwin Desai and G. Vahed, op.cit., 2010.

21. Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapoor, and Nirvikar Singh, The Other One Percent Indians in America. OUP, New York, 2017.

22. Gopal Guru, ‘What it Means to be an Indian Dalit? Dalit Responses to the Durban Conference’, in Balmurli Natrajan and Paul Greenough, Against Stigma: Studies in Caste, Race and Justice Since Durban. Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2009, p. 173.

23. Interview with Sat Pal Muman, Secretary of Ambedkar International Mission, London, and President of Caste Watch UK, 15 November 2020 (via zoom).

24. Ibid.

25. I am grateful to Sat Pal Muman for guiding me to these archives and also meticulously fact checking the information.

26. Eva-Maria Hardtmann, The Dalit Movement in India: Local Practices and Global Connections. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

27. Vidya Bhushan Rawat, ‘The History of Ambedkarite Movement in United Kingdom: Interview with Arun Kumar’, Countercurrents, 3 December 2016,

28. Nanak Chand Rattu, Little Known Facets of Dr. Ambedkar. Focus Impressions, New Delhi, 2001.

29. From the notes of Sat Pal Muman communicated via email to the author, 25 November 2020.

30. BBC, ‘The Black Country’,

31. Email correspondence with Eugene Culas, Director of VODI, 26 November 2020.

32. From the notes of Sat Pal Muman communicated via email to the author, 25 November 2020.

33. Annapurna Waughray, ‘Capturing Caste in Law: Caste Discrimination and the Equality Act 2010’, Human Rights Law Review 14(2), 2014, pp. 359-79; a further commentary on the history of the legislation and politics around can be found in Meena Dhanda, David Mosse, Annapurna Waughray, David Keane, Roger Green, Stephen Iafrati, and Jessie Mundy, ‘Caste in Britain: Experts’ Seminar and Stakeholders’ Workshop’. Research Report 92, 2014. Equality and Human Rights Commission, Manchester:

34. David Mosse argues this move was intended ‘toward the protection of upper-caste community spaces and away from those seeking protection from discrimination.’ David Mosse, ‘Outside Caste? The Enclosure of Caste and Claims to Castelessness in India and the United Kingdom’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 62(1), January 2020, pp. 22-23.

35. Interview with Sat Pal Muman, 15 November 2020 (via zoom).

36. Ibid.

37. Borkar actively collaborated and organized with UK anti-caste groups for 15 years. His doctoral thesis, ‘In the Twilight Zone of Aid Bureaucracy: A Study of Social Policy Entrepreneurs’, submitted to the University of Sussex, looks at the growing trend of policy entrepreneurship in social exclusion policies.

38. Interview with Laxmi Berwa, 25 June 2020 (telephone).

39. Ibid.

40. Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2012.

41. Interview with Yogesh Varhade, 24 June 2020; Laxmi Berwa, 25 June 2020; Ram Gautam, 25 June 2020 (telephone).

42. Namdeo Nimgade, In The Tigers Shadow: The Autobiography of an Ambedkarite. Navayana, Delhi, 2010.

43. Manan Desai, ‘Caste in Black and White: Dalit Identity and the Translation of African American Literature’, Comparative Literature 67(1), 2015, pp. 94-113. DOI 10.1215/00104124-2862043

44. M.N. Wankhede, ‘Negro Sahitya’, Marathi Vishwakosh Dnyanmandal, accessed 7 November 2020.

45. Interview with Ram Gautam, founder of Dalit Literary Society, USA and veteran activist of VISION is a brother of Har Dayal (telephone).

46. Interview with Laxmi Berwa, 24 November 2020 (telephone).

47. Interview with Yogesh Varhade, 24 June 2020 (telephone).

48. Interview with Laxmi Berwa, 25 June 2020 (telephone).

49. N. Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., p. 87.

50. Janardhan Waghmare, American Negro: Sahitya Aani Sanskruti (American Negro: Literature and Culture). Padmagandha Prakashan, Pune, 1978.

51. Gangadhar Pantawane, ‘Evolving a New Identity: The Development of a Dalit Culture’, in Barbara Joshi (ed.), Untouchable! Voices of the Dalit Liberation. Zed Books, London, 1986, p. 86.

52. Sharankumar Limbale, Dalit Sahityache Soundaryashastra. Kaanta Prakashan, Barshi, 1988.

53. Sharad Patil, Abrahmani Sahityache Soundaryashastra. Sugawa Prakashan, Pune, 1988.

54. M.N. Wankhede, 2020, op. cit., accessed 7 November 2020.

55. Balmurli Natarajan, The Culturalization of Caste in India Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age. Routledge, New York, 2011, p. xvii; Balmurli Natarajan, ‘From Jati to Samaj’, Seminar 633, May 2012, p. 56.

56. David Mosse, ‘Outside Caste?, op. cit., pp. 15-20.

57. Press Statement, ‘UK General Election – Its Decision Time’, Standing Coalition of Sikhs, Hindus and Jains,

58. Dharmic Ideas and Policy Foundation, ‘Dharmic Ideas’,

59. David Mosse, ‘Outside Caste?’, op. cit., p. 21.

60. Interview with the president of the Bhagwan Valmik Sabha, Southall, June 2012.

61. David Mosse, ‘Outside Caste?’, op. cit, p. 21, John Zavos, ‘Small Acts, Big Society: Sewa and Hindu (Nationalist) Identity in Britain’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(2), 2015, pp. 243-58.

62. Gandhi’s ‘Introduction to Varnavyavastha’, Harijanbandhu, 23 September 1934, in R. Iyer (ed.), The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatama Gandhi (Vol. 3). Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987, pp. 559-65.

63. B.R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, BAWS, Vol. 9, p. 277-8.

64. Ibid., p. 277.

65. Ibid., p. 278.

66. Meena Dhanda, ‘Anti-Casteism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping Caste as an Aspect of Race’, Radical Philosophy 192, Jul/Aug 2015.

67. Ibid., p. 41.

68. Ibid.

69. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., 1993, p. 11.

70. David Mosse, ‘Outside Caste?’, op. cit., p. 23.

71. Gopal Guru, ‘What it Means to be an Indian Dalit? Dalit Responses to the Durban Conference’, in Balmurli Natrajan and Paul Greenough, Against Stigma: Studies in Caste, Race and Justice Since Durban. Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2009, p. 178.

72. Ibid., p. 179.

73. Ibid.